Vancouver becomes role model for open source in government

Open source activists are praising the Open Data, Open Standards and Open Source motion passed by the City of Vancouver last month.

Proposed by City Councillor Andrea Reimer, the motion encourages the adoption of open standards, promotes distribution of open data and places open source on equal footing with commercial software during procurement cycles.

Vancouver is the first municipality in Canada to pass a motion that embraces the “open” city concept. But “we took some of our lead from Toronto, who did a 1.0 version of a motion last fall and is looking at rolling some stuff out,” said Reimer.

“We’ve benefited from other cities that have been pieces of similar initiatives … it’s sort of become an open source motion. Now I have other cities looking at the motion and saying, ‘How can we use that and improve upon it and bring in some new policies ourselves?’” she said.

The process serves as a great metaphor, Reimer pointed out.

“It’s not just about playing in that area and being there, it’s about a government that actually thinks like that. If this is what works for people, the Web … this is where we need to go and (for) service delivery as well,” she said.

Data needs to flow more smoothly and in standards that are easily importable and can move through applications smoothly, said Reimer.

“We have an online broadcast of our council meeting, except that if you’re not running the latest version of Windows, there’s no way you can watch it. The hilarious thing is we can’t even watch it on our own computers at city because we don’t have the most recent version of Windows,” she said.

The CIO of a Vancouver school board quietly moved to open source last March, Reimer pointed out. By deciding not to renew its Microsoft Office licence, he saved enough money to purchase a computer lab for every school in the city and schools are now allowed to install Firefox, she said.

The lack of open standards is actually one of the largest barriers to open source, said Ottawa-based open source activist Russel McOrmond. The only way for open data to be useful is if it’s released in an open standard, he pointed out.

What makes the motion so significant is that it recognizes the interdependency between data, standards and software, he said. “Recognizing that there are interconnections between all three things is great,” he said.

McOrmond, policy coordinator for the Canadian Association for Open Source (CLUE) and co-coordinator of Getting Open Source Login into Government (GOSLING), also hailed how publicly the process was performed.

“A lot of levels of government make motions to open data, open standards, open source, but if they’re not done in a public way that’s visible to enough people, then the ability to backtrack is always there,” he said.

The motion will primarily serve as an educational opportunity for government itself, according to McOrmond. “It will cause (politicians) to ask the right questions to the right people,” he said. This includes asking management making the software choices why they are excluding the free market.

The goal of the motion is to show there is a policy and political support for open source, according to Dave Eaves, an open source activist and fellow at the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Queens University who was the first to blog about the motion.

“The goal here is not to pick a winner or favour one outcome in the marketplace,” he said. “It’s more designed to raise consciousness and compel people who are making procurement decisions to not allow them to ignore open source software and to explain, for example, why they may not be going with a free option,” Eaves said in an interview.

Patience is required from the open source front, Eaves noted. “The city won’t be looking to change software if they have software that currently works and they paid for the licences … it’s going to be a longer-term game,” he said.

The biggest challenge will be educating public servants, according to Eaves. “A lot of people don’t know how to measure the costs of open source software and there is a real need for support,” he said.

Eaves suggested the open source community figure out a way to support their software in a manner that an organization like the City can engage with. “The open source community is going to have to be prepared to experiment a little and cities have legitimate concerns around support that need to be addressed,” he said.

One of the big myths is that open source software is unsupported, but companies like Red Hat show this isn’t the case, he pointed out.

By sharing software that is traditionally coded in-house or outsourced to consultants, municipalities could dramatically reduce development costs, Eaves suggested. “A lot of software is coded in-house to meet a specific demand. It’s not every city in the world that needs that software, but certainly there are cities around the world that do need that software,” he said.

Eaves hopes the motion will gather enough momentum to create a SourceForge for municipalities. “As municipalities write code, they could upload it to SourceForge and other municipalities could say, ‘That’s what we need and we could work on that as well,’” he said.

McOrmond is curious to see what changes the city will make to procurement policies. The current problem with the bidding process in Ottawa is the way the government asks the questions, he pointed out. “If you ask the procurement people or public works whether or not the government of Canada does (allow open source), they would say of course we do. The problem is the way they ask for software presupposes proprietary,” he said.

Another problem, according to McOrmond, are the managers who prefer to outsource as much of the management as possible. “In open source, the choice of what software you use and then the choice of what vendors you use to get support are completely disconnected, so that means the managers have to do some work to decide from a free market of possibilities as to who they are going to hire for support,” he said.

Reimer will have better sense of timelines over the next couple months, but anticipates policy changes by the fall. “It’s complicated by the fact that our CIO just retired,” she said. But a lot of city data already falls into the open data category, which must move into open standards, she pointed out.

“In terms of what can and can’t be released, that’s not the issue for us. It’s more about how can we move it into this new standard,” she said. The GIS department is actively looking at moving data to new formats, she pointed out.

Reimer is also working on a couple starter projects to serve as demonstrations for “what could be different if we were doing this.” Members of the open source community who are interested in getting involved are encouraged to e-mail her directly at [email protected].

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